“I was 16 years old when I had my lower-leg blown apart by a mine”. Aimable pulled up his trouser leg to reveal his prosthetic limb and told me of the day that irrevocably changed his life. His task was to keep watch over some cows as they grazed in the hills. He followed the cows as they wandered into a patch of woodland, and stepped right in the path of landmines from previous warfare. He was to spend the next eight months in hospital.
With the loss of his leg came the loss of hope. “I was lonely and depressed”, he said, his face lit by a ribbon of light from a break in the corrugated roof above us. In Rwanda, over 90% of people are subsistence farmers. They eke out a living by relying on their physical strength to grow food in small plots of land. For the disabled, gainful employment is an up-hill task, which is no mean feat in the ‘land of a thousand hills’.
The smell of wood chips and dust hung faintly in the air, and a cool breeze wisped its way through the open door to the workshop. Deep set eyes from sombre wooden masks stared down at us from a shelf to our left, as we sat among an array of tools and wooden ornaments. A set of burnished rhino bookends flanked us to the right.
Hewn from years of hard work and perseverance, this small group of men form a solid unit of shared knowledge and skill. None of this would be the case were it not for some nuns who took it upon themselves to visit Aimable while he was languishing in hospital. They helped him find a prosthetic leg, and offered him work when he recovered. They asked him if he wanted to train in woodcarving, following a visit from an Italian clay worker and woodcarver who would go on to share her knowledge with Aimable and Sylver, another man in need of decent employment. Jean de Dieu, Celestin, Joseph, Emmanuel, and Faustin, would later join them to form the Inganzo woodcarving group.
The years that followed were far from easy. None of the men had any knowledge of woodcarving to begin with. “I cut my fingers when I first started carving”, said Aimable. “I was very discouraged”. However, over time, and with much determination, the men improved their techniques. They partnered with Azizi Life through Jeannine Umutoniwase and Tom McGregor, and started working with Azizi Life to sell products. “They [Azizi Life] kept sending us samples and ideas for products, asking us to come back with similar things of good-quality, and when we tried to make them, we kept having to go back and try again. We had to improve the quality for our products to sell”. A wry smile spread from his eyes down to his mouth, as he remembered the patience that all parties needed with each other.
Now, the men take pride in their work. “Working with my hands and helping to provide for my family makes me feel like a complete person; I do not feel disabled”, said Jean de Dieu. He leaned forward, eyes wide, animated with joy. Jean de Dieu was born with a rare condition in which his legs were too short and frail to support him and enable him to walk properly. With the money that he earns from woodcarving with the group, he hopes to save enough to buy a new pair of specialist orthopaedic shoes that will help him to walk. They cost around $400. It will take time to save for them, but it is now possible for him do so.
“Working with my hands and helping to provide for my family makes me feel like a complete person; I do not feel disabled”, Jean de Dieu.
These men have carved more than just beautiful wooden ornaments; they have carved out a brighter future for themselves and their families. “Together, we help each other with our problems”, said Jean de Dieu, settling into his chair. “The stronger members go out and collect heavy materials for us to work with”.
It is remarkable that these men had no knowledge of their now much-loved craft, having progressed from amatuers to master craftsmen. They strive for excellence and constantly train each other in new skills, as they were trained by others. If, as happened over the years, a professional woodcarver came to share their knowledge with one member of the group, that knowledge would be passed on to all the other members; no one was in it for themselves. Knowledge and know-how was pooled and strengthened the whole group. They have plans to increase their numbers, which will enable them to officially register as a cooperative.
‘What gives you hope?’, I asked Aimable. “Family”, he replied. “And prayer”. He smiled. While some would ask of God: Why me? Aimable sees it differently. “God saved me from dying. He helped me walk again. He sent people my way that would help me learn my craft, and I know that God is with me and that He loves me”.
We headed outside. On my way out, I glanced at a wooden statue in the back of the workshop, hewn from a tree trunk: a wistful-looking nun clutching a book. Maybe this was the men’s way of memorialising the kindness of the nun who visited Aimable in hospital back in 1996 as he lay there in pain and penury. Could she have known what events she would set in motion?
To learn more about Inganzo, and to purchase some of the beautiful fair trade products they make, click here: https://www.azizilife.com/inganzo-cooperative/